Lions Gate via Everett Collection
When we last left our heroes, they had conquered all opponents in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, returned home to their newly refurbished living quarters in District 12, and fallen haplessly to the cannibalism of PTSD. And now we're back! Hitching our wagons once again to laconic Katniss Everdeen and her sweet-natured, just-for-the-camera boyfriend Peeta Mellark as they gear up for a second go at the Capitol's killing fields.
But hold your horses — there's a good hour and a half before we step back into the arena. However, the time spent with Katniss and Peeta before the announcement that they'll be competing again for the ceremonial Quarter Quell does not drag. In fact, it's got some of the film franchise's most interesting commentary about celebrity, reality television, and the media so far, well outweighing the merit of The Hunger Games' satire on the subject matter by having Katniss struggle with her responsibilities as Panem's idol. Does she abide by the command of status quo, delighting in the public's applause for her and keeping them complacently saturated with her smiles and curtsies? Or does Katniss hold three fingers high in opposition to the machine into which she has been thrown? It's a quarrel that the real Jennifer Lawrence would handle with a castigation of the media and a joke about sandwiches, or something... but her stakes are, admittedly, much lower. Harvey Weinstein isn't threatening to kill her secret boyfriend.
Through this chapter, Katniss also grapples with a more personal warfare: her devotion to Gale (despite her inability to commit to the idea of love) and her family, her complicated, moralistic affection for Peeta, her remorse over losing Rue, and her agonizing desire to flee the eye of the public and the Capitol. Oftentimes, Katniss' depression and guilty conscience transcends the bounds of sappy. Her soap opera scenes with a soot-covered Gale really push the limits, saved if only by the undeniable grace and charisma of star Lawrence at every step along the way of this film. So it's sappy, but never too sappy.
In fact, Catching Fire is a masterpiece of pushing limits as far as they'll extend before the point of diminishing returns. Director Francis Lawrence maintains an ambiance that lends to emotional investment but never imposes too much realism as to drip into territories of grit. All of Catching Fire lives in a dreamlike state, a stark contrast to Hunger Games' guttural, grimacing quality that robbed it of the life force Suzanne Collins pumped into her first novel.
Once we get to the thunderdome, our engines are effectively revved for the "fun part." Katniss, Peeta, and their array of allies and enemies traverse a nightmare course that seems perfectly suited for a videogame spin-off. At this point, we've spent just enough time with the secondary characters to grow a bit fond of them — deliberately obnoxious Finnick, jarringly provocative Johanna, offbeat geeks Beedee and Wiress — but not quite enough to dissolve the mystery surrounding any of them or their true intentions (which become more and more enigmatic as the film progresses). We only need adhere to Katniss and Peeta once tossed in the pit of doom that is the 75th Hunger Games arena, but finding real characters in the other tributes makes for a far more fun round of extreme manhunt.
But Catching Fire doesn't vie for anything particularly grand. It entertains and engages, having fun with and anchoring weight to its characters and circumstances, but stays within the expected confines of what a Hunger Games movie can be. It's a good one, but without shooting for succinctly interesting or surprising work with Katniss and her relationships or taking a stab at anything but the obvious in terms of sending up the militant tyrannical autocracy, it never even closes in on the possibility of being a great one.
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The latest movie in the Step Up franchise aims for a politicized message behind all the flashy moves but it could do with a lot less plot and a lot more dancing. In Step Up Revolution the Miami dance group "The Mob" takes to the streets (and other random locations) to perform intricately choreographed routines with their own DJ a camera guy who uploads their videos to YouTube and a graffiti artist who leaves their signature behind. It takes at least that much effort just to get hipster New Yorkers to ride the subways without any pants on once a year; it's hard to believe that The Mob could pull off their elaborate schemes without getting caught but that's the magic of movies.
The Mob represents the more diverse working class side of Miami a young multiracial group of friends who create incredible works of art that disappear before they get shut down. One of the Mob's leaders Sean (Ryan Guzman) earnestly explains to newcomer Emily (Kathryn McCormick) that the group's reason is to give a voice to the voiceless or to be happy or to dance or something. It's not really clear but they have a lot of fun and look amazing doing it.
Once Sean and his friends find out that a greedy developer plans to raze their neighborhood to make way for another South Beach-style hotel monstrosity they have a reason to rally but until then they're just trying to win a cash prize by getting clicks on YouTube. The typical Step Up twist is that Emily is the developer's daughter. Mr. Anderson (Peter Gallagher) doesn't approve of Emily's love of dancing or other frippery and he certainly wouldn't approve of her hanging out with the people causing such mayhem in the streets of Miami.
Step Up Revolution biggest misstep is trying to give the movie more of a hook than the franchise's typical Romeo and Juliet-style love story and tap into "the Zeitgeist" (I swear that's from the studio-provided press notes) of flash mobs. The film could have cut out most of the plot and characters and still have a completely intact film insofar as the point of the film is its multimedia dance routines. The sort of productions The Mob pulls off are more akin to carefully planned art installations or music videos in terms of scope; it would have been better to at least make that somehow feasible in terms of the storyline. Yes we are here for a spectacle and we surely get a spectacle but it needs to have some roots in reality.
The dance scenes are fun sexy and occasionally a little sappy but overall quite enjoyable for people who enjoy "So You Think You Can Dance" type of shows. Kathryn McCormick and Stephen "tWitch" Boss both appeared on "SYTYCD" and their costar Misha Gabriel is a classically trained ballet dancer turned pro back-up dancer for folks like Beyoncé and Michael Jackson. Guzman doesn't have a dance background but he is an MMA fighter who obviously took his training very seriously. The entire outfit is pretty damn entertaining to be honest.
As far as the 3D goes it makes most of Miami look overcast and grey. The extra zings added in to make sure we get our money's worth like sand flicking out at us or a breakdancer whose foot seems to be aiming for our face only serves to distract from the real show at hand. There is also an awful lot of ramping and generally spazzy editing tricks that look cheap. The screenplay by Amanda Brody is definitely not its strong suit.
Step Up Revolution is the cinematic equivalent of a trashy beach novel. It's embarrassing to be caught actually enjoying it and you'll forget about it almost immediately but it's a decent way to spend a summer afternoon.
Festivals wrap; "Clerks" director makes points with wife; Joey Lawrence shines (really)
PARK CITY, Utah, Jan. 30, 2000 - Done.
"Girlfight" and "You Can Count on Me" - the two films everybody talked about non-stop up here - ended up as the two films everybody talked about non-stop during Saturday's awards ceremony at the Raquet Center. The movies took two awards each - tying as the Grand Jury Prize winner for best dramatic film.
"Two Family House" - a film that as far as we were concerned nobody talked about up here - ended up as the upset winner in the Audience Award category, supposedly a popular vote. We're not sure what audience voted for it, but we're sure it wasn't the people at the Raquet Center. The films that drew the biggest applause during a rundown of the competition dramas were, of course, "Girlfight" and "You Can Count on Me," as well as "Songcatcher," "Urbania" and "Our Song." Of course, "Two Family House" wasn't included in that rundown because it wasn't a competition flick - it was an American Spectrum entry.
For a complete look at the night's winners, check out The Buzz.
In other festival action:
IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS: "I've said this before and I'll say it again, I sort of wish there wasn't a competition at the festival because [as] nice, gratifying and thrilling as it is to win a prize, it's just so nice to be here. And I sort of wish we could all get here and be here and that would be it." - "You Can Count on Me" writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, to Hollywood.com.
LIKE WE SAID, IT'S THE THOUGHT THAT COUNTS: So, was Mr. Lonergan willing to give back his two awards he won Saturday? "No. Despite my altruistic sentiments."
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SUNDANCE AWARDS AND THE SLAMDANCE AWARDS: The Slamdance awards are held in a bar; the Sundance awards are held at a health club. The Slamdance awards take about an hour to hand out; the Sundance awards take about two hours to hand out. The Sundance awards also feature many more speeches about the importance of film festivals, in general, and Sundance, in particular.
EXCEPT FOR THOSE OF YOU SEATED IN THE BACK ROWS BEHIND THE PRESS AND SPONORS: "This evening is really yours …" - Sundance festival co-director Nicole Guillemet, in her opening remarks to filmmakers.
FINALLY, A REAL MOMENT: "P.S.: [Expletive deleted] Slamdance." - Faux letter from Robert Redford, as read by Sundance juror/potty-mouthed filmmaker Kevin Smith ("Clerks").
PRESENTER'S ULTERIOR MOTIVE REVEALED: "I'm so getting laid tonight." - Kevin Smith (again), after thanking his wife for no particular reason before revealing the winner of the best dramatic director award.
AND NOW YOU KNOW: "Girlfight" writer/director Karyn Kusama's first name is pronounced "Car-in," not "Care-in," as she pointed out on stage moments after the aforementioned Mr. Smith botched it.
AND NOW YOU KNOW THAT, TOO: Mercedes-Benz has cared deeply about independent film for a decade - or so said the Mercedes-Benz mucky-muck allotted stage time on account of the luxury-car maker is the official sponsor of Sundance's Grand Jury Prizes.
THAT SPECIAL TOUCH: "Can you, uh, GET OUT THE WAY." - Sundance volunteer, to person standing in said Sundance volunteer's way.
SOME PRIZES COME IN CASH FORM: "Groove" and "Chuck and Buck" both got high-profile deals in the last week - but not a single Sundance award.
TASTY STUFF WE ATE AT THE AFTER-PARTY: Quiche Lorraine, lemon-grilled chicken on focaccia, vegetarian frittata and little square brown fudgy things.
SPOTTED: Kevin Smith chatting up comic Bobcat Goldthwait near the bathroom directional sign at the Raquet Center.
MOVIES WE SAW:
1. "Good Housekeeping" (Slamdance Competition Feature) -- Frank Novak's debut feature, which won the Slamdance Grand Jury Award for best feature, is like a 92-minute episode of "Cops," with all the grit, grime and white trash of that voyeuristic hit -- plus lots more laughs. Don (Bob Mills) and Donatella (Petra Westen) are two weeks away from divorce court and their domestic strife is reaching a crescendo. Then, Don erects a wall in the middle of the house to draw the battle lines. He's aided in his war with the missus by a gaggle of oddball friends including his loser brother (who sleeps in the car on the lawn), a fellow action-figure collector geek, and a divorced friend turned men's-rights activist, who gives Don a pistol and a Laaz military rocket for "self defense." This is an alarmingly realistic movie about an extremely dysfunctional family, but its sometimes-absurd humor makes it a delightful, if not always easy, movie to watch. (-- Steve Ryfle)
2. "Dolphins" (Slamdance Competition Feature) -- Think "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," sans dialogue, and with a beautiful young woman standing in for Jack Nicholson. Throw in amazing cinematography, a la the craftsmanship of "Manhattan," and you're close to describing this 40-minute debut from Iranian-born Farhad Yawari, which won (despite its brief running time) this fest's Audience Award for best feature. A female mental patient (Julia Brendler) stares into her goldfish bowl and imagines herself swimming underwater with a school of dolphins. When she refuses to live by the house rules, the girl is repeatedly subdued by a Nurse Ratched-like character until a good-hearted garbage man busts her out of the nut house. The story is only one component of this multi-layered movie -- the music, the images and the performances meld seamlessly. Sure, it's a bit pretentious and artsy-fartsy, but it's obvious that Yawari is a filmmaker of great talent. (-- S.R.)
3. "Desperate But Not Serious" (SlamDunk) -- Bill Fishman, who has directed music videos for bands ranging from Suicidal Tendencies to Hank Williams Jr., as well as the big-screen comedies "Tapeheads" and Car 54, Where Are You?," weighs in with this $650,000 would-be comedic satire of the Los Angeles night-life scene. A San Francisco chick (Christine Taylor of "The Brady Bunch Movie") flies into L.A. to rendezvous with her botanist boyfriend (John Corbett) at a wedding reception, but when she loses the invitation she spends the entire night hopping from party to party with her party-gal friend (Paget Brewster) in search of her beau. During their misadventures, the girls meet a psychopath bartender (Henry Rollins), Brewster's ex-boyfriend (Max Perlich), a pretentious grrl rocker (Claudia Schiffer) and a pampered-but-nice movie star (Joey Lawrence -- the best thing about the film, really). In the end, Taylor gets her man (duh) but it's too late - the movie's already self-destructed with its unfunny, rambling dialogue and lack of story. Rent "Party Girl" instead. (-- S.R.)
BEST TAKE ON THE SUNDANCE Y2K EXPERIENCE: "It was monkeys and clowns all around." - Two anonymous filmmakers at The Club on Main Street.
WHAT ONE NON-FILMMAKER GOT OUT OF SUNDANCE: "Varicose veins from standing in line." -- Susan Nicolls, senior public relations manager, Macromedia.
HOW SUNDANCE Y2K DIFFERED FROM PREVIOUS SUNDANCES: "It's the same pretentiousness and arrogance. Have you seen these girls walking around outside with bare midriffs? What guy would want a girl with a blue stomach?" - Quotemeister Susan Nicolls.
WHY SLAMDANCE IS BETTER THAN SUNDANCE (ONE OPINION): "They're not kicking you out of parties like at Sundance." -- Sharon Reed, aspiring filmmaker.
WHY SUNDANCE IS BETTER THAN SLAMDANCE (ONE OPINION): "It was an excuse to party. In that respect, it succeeded tremendously."-- James Dudyen, filmmaker.
BEST PARTY: The Entertainment Weekly-sponsored bash on Jan. 21 at the Silver Lake Lodge. The free food (chicken strips with peanut dipping sauce) was refined; the view was spectacular; the band (Norway's own Getaway People) was very good. But, most of all, the festival was very young and we w ren't sick of this place yet. (-- J.R.)
WORST PARTY: The one on Friday night at Harry O's where the Worst (Most-Effective) Bouncer (see: below) put our own Jim Bartoo in a headlock on account of … well, to tell you the truth, we're still not exactly sure why.
BIGGEST PARTY TREND: Raves. Maybe it was the effect of the movie "Groove" being a big hit up here this year, but it wasn't surprising to see the president of New Line letting it all out on the dance floor to DJ's Digweed and Sasha. Rave culture touched everything at Sundance from the give-aways, (knit caps, disco-ball-keychains, and flashers) to the clothes (funk-sneakers and hi-tech nylon cargo-pants anyone?). (-- Gerry Katzman)
WORST (MOST-EFFECTIVE) BOUNCER: The nightclub Harry O's, which featured nightly performances by the likes of Sugar Ray, Primus, Third Eye Blind, and the Cult, should take the scads of money it made this week and open a studio, because as Hollywood Royalty waited in line and pleaded, "Let me in! I'm cold!," the red-mohawked bouncer replied, "Shut up, or none of you are getting in!" We smell a studio head in the making. (-- G.K.)
MOST CONSECUTIVE NIGHTS STANDING IN FRONT OF HARRY O'S WITHOUT GETTING IN: Four, as accomplished by Hollywood.com's Chuck Walton.
MOST UBIQUITOUS DRINK: "I have never seen so much frickin' Red Bull in my frickin life!" one party-goer screamed to us. The mediciney-sweet energy drink was everywhere in Park City. Red Bull, which contains "taurine," some kind of amino-acidy energy potion, is illegal in France - and, hence, a perfect compliment to vodka. (-- G.K.)
BEST SUGGESTION: Hold this stupid thing in May when it's, like, not FREAKIN' COLD outside.